Early Look: Life of Pi

There are five movies right now that seem to have the legs to go the distance and win Best Picture. “Argo” feels very modern and in love with Hollywood despite being set in the ’70s, “Silver Linings Playbook” is a warm crowd pleaser that does so much more than the average romantic comedy, “Lincoln,” with its cast, director and subject, is bound to be an iconic legacy movie, and “Les Miserables” is expected to have the theatrical spectacle from a recent Oscar favorite that the Academy will eat up.

But then there’s “Life of Pi,” a movie that feels both big and small. It’s the one movie in the bunch that has only two characters, a teenage boy and a Bengali tiger, and yet feels as though it’s an epic journey. It’s a personal love story, and yet it also has spiritual stakes. Yann Martel’s novel considers our mutual bond with nature and the belief that there is some higher power in the universe that keeps us alive and moving. That force may be called God, but in this time when religion is in fact divisive and political, I couldn’t be more excited for a movie that considers these big ideas on simple terms.

Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” opens on November 21st for the Thanksgiving holiday, and it’s a serious contender for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, a likely sweep of the technical awards and, to make a bold claim right now, what I bet will be the Best Original Score winner.

It tells the story of a boy from India named Pi (Suraj Sharma) who travels with his family to relocate their zoo. On their voyage, their ship sinks and Pi gets trapped on a life boat with a handful of animals, including a Bengali tiger. Years later, an older Pi (Irrfan Kahn) tells his story to a version of the book’s real life author, Yann Martel (Rafe Spall).

Lee spent the last four years tinkering with the visual effects required to put a visual spin to Martel’s flowing prose, including one scene where flying fish leap from the water that alone took a full year to visualize and stage. In fact, up until last month when the movie premiered at the New York Film Festival, Lee was still putting finishing touches on at least 90 visual effects shots, according to an interview he conducted with Collider.

But Lee’s real desire with adapting the story was to advance the possibilities of 3-D, which he still says is in its infancy in live action films and needs time to develop as a medium. The idea behind Pi’s ocean journey was to create a realistic world but also something that felt as though it belonged on another plane of existence. While not trying to look like a sci-fi, the need for physical and figurative depth screams 3-D, and several critics are already claiming it advances the possibilities of the technology leaps and bounds. During an In Contention podcast, Anne Thompson of Thompson on Hollywood called it a truly beautiful film, reaching for comparisons to films such as “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Gone With the Wind” to try and describe its unprecedented beauty.

The question remains whether it will perform commercially. The book is well known and loved (even President Obama extended his praise to Martel), but like “Cloud Atlas,” it belongs in the “unfilmable novel” category, and it remains a philosophical, even cult novel, not a tentpole adaptation.

Hopefully it does find an audience. Lee needs another hit after the disappointing “Taking Woodstock,” and “Life of Pi” could just be one of the more remarkable cinematic experiences of the year.

This is a sponsored post. All opinions are my own.

All photos courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.